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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BILL PLASCHKE

Close (Non) Call

Anyone who thinks Mia Hamm has lost it hasn't been watching U.S. play lately, including semifinal victory over Brazil.

September 25, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

CANBERRA, Australia — Is Mia Hamm losing it?

A question that quietly lingered in Olympic corners this summer erupted Sunday in a remote rugby stadium chilled by darkness and doubt.

Is Mia Hamm slowing down?

The Brazilians wondered. They pushed her, tripped her, shoved her, put the ball on their feet and danced around her.

The 11,000 shivering fans wondered. They booed her when she hit the ground, whistled when her passes missed a teammate.

At times during this Olympic semifinal women's soccer match, it appeared that even Mia Hamm wondered.

Bright eyes dimmed, muddy legs heavy, she was no longer the commanding presence who dragged her sport past a smitten public and into the spotlight.

Then, an opening.

A teammate booted the ball 30 yards to the goal area. Another teammate headed it across the front of the goal. Hamm sneaked a circle around Brazilian defenders and chipped it in past a fallen goalkeeper for the game's only goal.

Later, another opening.

Strolling to a sidewalk outside the locker room afterward, her dark hair still wet from the shower, she was asked to respond to the perception that she has lost some skills.

Her eyes glistened with what appeared to be tears.

Tears, it turns out, of determination.

"All I have to say to that is, every single day I wake up, I commit myself to being better," the 28-year-old said firmly, her voice rising. "Some days it happens. Some days it doesn't. Some days I do well. Some days I don't. That doesn't mean I will ever give up."

She stood squarely in front of the reporter, staring at him, almost challenging him to ask another uncomfortable question.

There was no need.

The U.S. women, with their 1-0 victory over Brazil, advance to play Norway on Thursday for their second consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Anyone betting against Mia Hamm is losing it.

*

If you watch the championship game Thursday, or Friday, or next month, or on a "Movie of the Week," or whenever NBC decides to show it, you will understand.

This is not the women's team you fell in love with.

The group that won the World Cup at the Rose Bowl last year, it waltzed.

This team trudges.

The group that won the 1996 Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, it was fearless.

This team is forever looking over its shoulder.

These women defeated a younger and faster Brazil team Sunday despite being outshot, 15-6.

They won with a goal that should not have counted because Tiffeny Milbrett hauled down that goalkeeper.

They won with such trepidation, they ended the game with soccer's version of a four-corner offense, stalling the ball in the corners.

"It's an intelligent application of strategy," said first-year Coach April Heinrichs. "It's smart soccer."

But it has never been U.S. women's soccer.

Despite being 3-0-1 in this tournament, not much of what they have played appears to be U.S. women's soccer.

So you point, as everyone does, to Hamm.

While her goal Sunday was her 127th in international play, it was only her second of the tournament. And this has only been the continuation of her troubles, not the start.

"It's been a tough summer at times for her," teammate Brandi Chastain said. "But she's realizing some things."

One of those lessons was evident Sunday, when the Brazilians knocked Hamm around so much they were given three yellow cards involving only her.

Where other U.S. teams would have lost their cool--the baseball team, for one--Hamm coolly ignored the hits and gained revenge with her feet.

"I have to take it as a sign of a respect," she said. "Otherwise, I go crazy."

It is this reaction that scores with teammates.

"For her to get bruised so much and not do anything about it, that shows us something," Milbrett said. "She knows we need her. And we know she'll be there."

Another lesson was evident late in the game, when the U.S. team didn't need one of the world's greatest scorers anymore.

They needed an extra great defender. So Hamm shifted to play defense.

"It's tough to bring your 'A' game out here every time," Chastain said. "Mia knows that now. She's come to terms with the idea that she can do so much more than score."

Has she lost a step? Haven't we all.

Is she hurting the team? Just listen to them.

Said Milbrett: "I've told her before, I have no idea what it's like to be Mia Hamm. To have all that pressure on you every day. To have to perform under that. How she deals with it means something to all of us."

Added Chastain: "I don't care if people outside of our team don't understand how special she is. We understand."

Mia Hamm continued standing in front of the questions late Sunday, lightly shivering but refusing to leave, facing her future with a chilly stare.

"Emotions can be an inspirational thing, or an Achilles' heel, because emotions are so unpredictable," she said. "So I tell young girls, just play."

Sounds vaguely like a shoe company slogan.

Sounds as though she's now living it for real.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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